Exclusive Interview: “Semiosis” Author Sue Burke
So, this is freaky: In talking to writer Sue Burke about her new science fiction novel Semiosis (hardcover, paperback, Kindle), she informed me that plants can be…aggressive? Seriously? I just hope the grass in front of my apartment spares my life long enough for me to read this space opera; from what Burke said about it, it sounds like a good read.
In a basic sense, what is Semiosis about?
A small group of Earthlings set up a colony on a distant planet. Soon they discover other intelligent life. Some of those life forms welcome them, others want them dead. But the humans can’t go back to Earth, so they have to try to find a way to live in their new home as they continue to face additional challenges to their survival.
Where did you get the idea for Semiosis, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
The original idea was simple: I had observed my houseplants attacking each other, and after a little research, I discovered that plants routinely fight to the death over access to sunlight. This is why roses have thorns: to anchor into other plants and climb over them. Plants are at war with each other. It took me a while, though, to collect ideas about how I could dramatize that fact. First, I wrote a short story, which is Chapter 1. Then, a couple of years later, I decided the story could be expanded into a novel. But how? I had to collect some more ideas and work out the plot.
Throughout all this, my houseplants never regained my trust.
Why did you decide to have the story span multiple generations instead of just being about the same characters throughout?
Though I tweaked the plants on this distant planet somewhat, they remained slow. They needed time to react, and I had to find a way to build that into the story…and make that strategy strengthen the novel. I decided to focus on one person from each generation to show how the colony developed and coped with a series of problems; meanwhile, their environment is reacting to them.
Semiosis is a science fiction novel. But is there a subgenre of sci-fi, or a couple of them, that you think describe this story better?
Clearly, the book is first-contact. Humans meet new species for the first time, and the aliens meet humans. But the book can also fit into ecofiction because humans are deeply involved with and accountable to their environment. I also tried to make the science as accurate as possible, so it might fall into hard sci-fi, too.
While Semiosis is your first novel, you’ve also, as you mentioned, written short stories. Are there any writers or novels that were a big influence on Semiosis, but not on your writing style as a whole?
Science fiction is often a dialogue, and some of my short stories have been prompted by other works. “Zero Hour” [which you can read here] owes a lot to 1984 by George Orwell and to Hal 9000, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. No single story influenced Semiosis, but every single story that has aliens and distant planets taught me something about what could be done.
How about non-literary influences, like movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have an influence on Semiosis?
I wrote this novel between 2001 and 2004. That was when a few television series first began to have a story arc rather than being episodic, shows such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Those were good lessons in how to create a novel in which the chapters were individual stories, but they needed to fit into an overall plot arc.
You’ve also said that Stevland, which is the plant that’s the dominant life form on the planet, is named for Stevie Wonder, whose real name is Stevland Hardaway Morris. But did Stevie have any other influence on the story? Because he does have albums called Songs In The Key Of Life, Jungle Fever, and Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life Of Plants”?
Stevie Wonder’s music forms part of the soundtrack of my life. As for the book, The Secret Life Of Plants and Stevie Wonder’s Journey came out decades ago. With the increasing pace of scientific discoveries in botany, they weren’t part of my research. I have a shelf of reference material that I used, including the topics of worldbuilding, the development of life on Earth, the natural history of flowers, plants’ senses, and the behavior of trees in forests. Plants have busy lives, and they’re not secret anymore. We’re learning precisely how they do things.
On the Semiosis website you have links to two short stories, “Cinderella Faraway” and “Spiders,” which take place between chapters of Semiosis. First off, are they included in the print or digital versions of Semiosis?
They’re not in the novel because I wrote them later. I finished the novel in 2004, and I was having no luck selling it, so I decided to see if I could write some stories located in that world, get them published, and in that way attract some attention. “Cinderella Faraway” takes place between Chapters 1 and 2, and it never sold, perhaps because it’s so dismal, but “Spiders,” which takes place between Chapters 3 and 4, was published in Asimov’s magazine in 2008. Then it was picked for the Year’s Best SF 14 by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. That earned the attention of a small, excellent publisher, but when the Great Recession cut into book sales, it couldn’t get my book into print. When I got the rights to the book back, I tried selling it again, and eventually I found an agent, then Tor decided to buy it.
Are there other Semiosis-related short stories? Or plans for some?
Not right now…but that is a great idea. There are lots of loose ends in the novel, smaller stories that await being told.
What about other novels? Are you thinking that Semiosis is the first book in a larger saga?
The sequel to Semiosis has been written, and the manuscript and an outline for a third book have been submitted to Tor. They’re thinking about it. That’s everything I know right now.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced Semiosis. But has there been any interest in adapting Semiosis into a movie, show, or game?
So far, I haven’t been contacted by anyone, but I own the rights, and I can be very reasonable.
If Semiosis was to be adapted into a movie or show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles and why them? Or you think it should be a game, what kind of game and who should make it?
I’m not the expert to ask about these questions, though the scope of the book is much too extensive for a movie, so I think it would need to be a series. If the matter came up, I’d do my homework and try to make a good decision backed by competent advice. A lot of people are much smarter than me about a lot of things.
Finally, if someone really enjoys Semiosis, what multi-generational sci-fi novel of someone else’s should they read next?
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy — Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, along with a collection of short stories called The Martians — is an excellent choice. Scientifically rigorous, it covers two centuries of time as human colonists terraform Mars despite the harsh environment and political, social, ethical, and personal conflicts, as well as a struggle for independence from Earth. It also features, no pun intended, a lot of worldbuilding.
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